Maya Angelou

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Summary and Analysis of Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman"

Summary:

Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" celebrates female strength, confidence, and inner beauty. The poem highlights how these qualities, rather than traditional notions of physical attractiveness, define a phenomenal woman. Angelou's rhythmic and empowering verses challenge societal standards and inspire women to embrace their unique identities and self-worth.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can you provide a summary of Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman"?

"The Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou is a poem written in free verse. The poem consists of five stanzas, with the first, second, fourth, and fifth ranging from 12 to 16 lines in length and the middle or third stanza consisting of two lines. The poem is narrated in the first person. Although the narrator proclaims herself to be a "phenomenal" woman, the fairly generic praise terms used in the poem give us no specific details of her age, social status, career, family situation, or race, although the emphasis on her attractiveness to men suggests that she accepts traditional gender roles and is heterosexual. Thus she is intended in some ways to represent "everywoman" or the universal possibilities of women of a certain character.

The term "phenomenal" is not used here in a technical philosophical sense but rather as an expression meaning a combination of outstanding, exceptional, and popular. In the 1970s when this poem was written, the term could also be used in a manner to similar to how the term "viral" is used now. 

The poem is an extended meditation on how the narrator manages to attract so much male attention. The first stanza starts out by suggesting that traditionally pretty women are jealous of her and don't understand how the narrator, lacking traditional cuteness and not looking like a fashion model, is nonetheless so compelling attractive. The second stanza describes how she affects and attracts men. The third stanza describes how men have difficulty understanding the source of her attractiveness and the fourth stanza describes the source of her pride and attractiveness in her inner strength or attitude. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can you summarize Maya Angelou's poem "The Phenomenal Woman"?

Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" describes a woman who has a certain je ne sais quoi. This is a French expression used to convey a quality that one senses about another without being able to exactly describe it.

In Angelou's poem, the speaker initially states that prettier women than she "wonder where my secret lies" because they do not know how to define it. Indeed, the speaker possesses a quality that attracts men without objective explanation because she is not "cute or built to suit a fashion model's size." Yet, while others may not be able to define her feminine magnetism, the speaker feels that she can. Put simply, she defines herself:

I'm a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

In the second stanza, the speaker expands upon her definition of herself as a "Phenomenal woman" who causes men to stand or even kneel in awe of her when she enters a room. Some even "swarm" around her as bees to a hive. This occurs because she has a "fire" in her eyes, a "flash" of her teeth, a "swing" in her waistline, and a "joy" to her feet as she enters. All of these movements catch the eyes of men; nevertheless, she cannot be defined by these men who watch her because she is "a woman/Phenomenally."

In the brief third stanza, the speaker confirms her description of herself:

Phenomenal woman,
That's me.

Finally, in the fourth stanza, the speaker notes that men themselves are puzzled by what it is about her that they perceive when they see her. For, they cannot solve her "inner mystery" even when she tries to "show them." Truly, then, it is just that je ne sais quoi --that certain something--that makes her all woman:

It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile,
The ride of my breasts,
The grace of my style.
I'm a woman
Phenomenally.

Not just one who possesses certain very seductive womanly qualities, the speaker is entirely a woman because of her self-confidence and comfort in her appearance. She knows that she does not have perfect features, but she uses every part of her womanly self to her advantage. For this reason, she is a "Phenomenal woman"--a woman whose summation of qualities creates the "phenomenon" of beguiling men.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Analyze the poem "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou critically.

To critically examine Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman," let us first look at the structure. The poem is written in free verse, with an irregular rhyme scheme. It does have a clear rhythmic ebb and flow to it when read aloud. This rhythm, paired with the way the lines of the poem look on the page, is suggestive of the curves of the female form, thus allowing the structure of the poem to emphasize the theme of natural feminine allure. 

Angelou uses repetition throughout the poem to bind it together poetically, as well as to emphasize her main point. The rhythm created by the repetitions in lines like:

"The reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my steps,
The curl of my lips" (lines 6-9)

serve the purpose of listing the narrator's feminine attributes in a predictable way throughout the poem, but also create the rhythm and sway that evokes a curvy woman swinging her hips as she strolls down a street. 

Angelou also uses repetition in the final four lines of each stanza:

"I'm a woman
Phenomenally
Phenomenal woman,
That's me."

This chorus acts a repetition of her thesis for the poem: that her power, beauty and grace come from her inherent femininity, rather than an external trait granted by society.

Examining Angelou's word choice, one cannot escape her decision to use the word "phenomenal." According to dictionary.com, the word can have several meanings. The first and most obvious is "highly extraordinary; exceptional" and this fits right in with what Angelou is saying in the poem. Her narrator is an exceptional woman, who intrigues both men and women, but is also exceptional because she is a woman, embodying the Platonic ideal of what being a woman means and is. 

However, phenomenal directly relates to phenomenon, which means "a fact, occurrence, or circumstance observed or observable." This definition injects some irony into the poem. The narrator tries time and again to demonstrate her innate womanliness and its power, by indicating things like the "arch of [her] back" or "sun of [her] smile" (lines 38-9). To her, female beauty and power are a clear phenomenon, observable by the senses. But the men "say they still can't see" (line 36). To them, this beauty and power is a mysterious force, unknowable even when they are directly shown it. 

Most readings of the poem correctly identify the themes of confidence in oneself and inner beauty that Angelou emphasizes in the poem. However, a deeper look, as shown above, will also reveal the celebration and reverence of the feminine that Angelou gives to her narrator. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Please provide a critical appreciation of Phenomenal Woman by Maya Angelou.

Maya Angelou, renowned author, poet and actress (even receiving an Emmy nomination for her part in the Roots mini series), has an abundance of experience from which to draw in her poetry. Her early life was difficult and traumatic and even caused her to stop speaking for five years, between the ages of eight  and thirteen. Angelou believes in learning from every circumstance and growing stronger. She encourages women, in Phenomenal Woman, to be proud of who they are and to see beyond superficial beauty, despite the average woman not being "built to suit a fashion model’s size."   

In explaining her story, Angelou, in the poem, persuades her audience to listen to her "secret" in understanding her own "inner mystery." A woman's unique qualities are what define her and this poem is designed to give confidence to any woman, especially through the use of repetition so that, by the end of the poem, each and every woman is convinced that she is, in fact, that  "Phenomenal woman, / That's Me." This repetition is a tool, used effectively in encouraging women.

The title and the use of the first person draw readers into this poem as it ensures that the poem does not become a generalization but reflects a very personal message. Angelou could have spoken about phenomenal women (plural) but it would not have been as compelling or persuasive. In dealing with challenges, trauma and life, it is necessary to accept what occurs because, no matter what, the essential elements of a "phenomenal woman"  remain and she just needs to be reminded of them in order to retain a positive attitude and sense of self. There is no need to "shout or jump about / Or have to talk real loud." Self assurance comes from understanding her own place in the world. 

The poem is almost lyrical and has the most impact when spoken out loud. It is not complicated and any literary devices are descriptive and create appropriate and often pleasing visual pictures such as " the joy in my feet." The description of men as compared to "A hive of honey bees" is very significant in terms of the importance of bees and the romantic notions of making honey whilst, in fact, bees are potentially deadly. This relates to the complex relationship between men and women. Even if a reader does not make the connection, the imagery remains honest and straightforward.

Much of the language used (the diction) is casual and distinct from the very powerful word "phenomenal," creating the dramatic impression (mood) which Angelou inspires and ensuring that the poem has an air of hopefulness and positive energy, ensuring a tone that is optimistic and encouraging. The use of rhyme adds interest to the poem and stresses the fact that no two women are the same, much like Angelou's use of rhyme is not uniform. Alliteration is used subtly and ensures a distinct personality, not replicated, again stressing a woman's individuality as: 

It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand, 
Note the use of the "h." Physical characteristics do not create the person, in this case, the woman, but it is everything about her which inspires because "I'm a woman....That's me."
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can you provide a summary of Maya Angelou's poem "The Phenomenal Woman"?

Maya Angelou, who was born April 4th, 1928 and died May 28th, 2014, was an American writer and poet. Her poem "Phenomenal Woman" appeared in a collection of four poems in 1995.
The poem is four stanzas long and uses poetic elements of repetition, rhyme scheme, and metaphor. Angelou repeats the line "I'm a woman, phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, that's me" for emphasis and effect. The rhyme scheme is not regular, but at least two lines rhyme in each stanza.
Maya Angelou celebrates her womanhood in this poem. In the first stanza, she explains that she is not the stereotypical physical beauty, and yet, she is an object of desire for men. She tries to explain that her appeal is not in her dress size or her chiseled, perfect features. It's contained in elements like the span of her arms and hips, and in the way she walks. She is confident, even joyful in her womanhood. Her mystique radiates from the inside out.
In stanza two, Angelou talks about how men react to her when she walks into a room. Using the metaphor of bees, she compares the men swarming her to the way they swarm around a hive. She is the queen bee, and they are all working for her. She talks about where this mystique comes from again, saying it's in the fire of her eyes, the flash of her smile, and the joy in her feet. The eyes as the windows to her soul, her smile as an outward expression of joy, and the lightness of her walk are all manifestations of her inward confidence and radiance.
In stanza three, Angelou discusses the fact that men have often wondered what they see in her because it isn't typical beauty. It's not even something they can describe. She says they try to touch her inner mystery, but they can't. This is something she says she's tried to show them, but they still don't understand it. It's deeper than superficiality, a treasure she possesses that can't be taken away. Still, she tries to explain it in physical terms, pointing to the arch of her back and the sun of her smile. 
In the fourth stanza, she explains that this inward treasure that she possesses, that manifests in certain unexpected physical attributes, is why she is proud. She doesn't have to fight for attention or be loud. She exudes grace and power and says to the reader this fact ought to make them proud. She states that she is a woman, "phenomenally." The full text of the poem can be found below.
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. 
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size   
But when I start to tell them, 
They think I’m telling lies. 
I say, 
It’s in the reach of my arms, 
The span of my hips,   
The stride of my step,   
The curl of my lips.   
I’m a woman 
Phenomenally. 
Phenomenal woman,   
That’s me. 
I walk into a room 
Just as cool as you please,   
And to a man, 
The fellows stand or 
Fall down on their knees.   
Then they swarm around me, 
A hive of honey bees.   
I say, 
It’s the fire in my eyes,   
And the flash of my teeth,   
The swing in my waist,   
And the joy in my feet.   
I’m a woman 
Phenomenally. 
Phenomenal woman, 
That’s me. 
Men themselves have wondered   
What they see in me. 
They try so much 
But they can’t touch 
My inner mystery. 
When I try to show them,   
They say they still can’t see.   
I say, 
It’s in the arch of my back,   
The sun of my smile, 
The ride of my breasts, 
The grace of my style. 
I’m a woman 
Phenomenally. 
Phenomenal woman, 
That’s me. 
Now you understand 
Just why my head’s not bowed.   
I don’t shout or jump about 
Or have to talk real loud.   
When you see me passing, 
It ought to make you proud. 
I say, 
It’s in the click of my heels,   
The bend of my hair,   
the palm of my hand,   
The need for my care.   
’Cause I’m a woman 
Phenomenally. 
Phenomenal woman, 
That’s me.
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" inspire all women?

This poem is a source of inspiration to all women because it creates an inclusive vision of womanhood. This is shown clearly in the first stanza when the speaker states that she does not adhere to society's typical view of beauty: she is not the same size as a "model," for instance, nor is she "cute." Instead, the speaker's beauty comes from the way she walks and behaves. We see this idea repeated in the next stanza when she  describes how men flock to her whenever she walks into a room, like bees around a hive. This is inspirational because it suggests that women do not have to look a particular way in order to be happy and beautiful—they are beautiful and inspirational in their own natural way.

Secondly, the speaker inspires women by using the word 'phenomenal,' a word which is defined as something extraordinary and remarkable. So, by using this word, the speaker creates an association between being a woman and being extraordinary and special. More importantly, she does not differentiate between different types of women: for the speaker, all women are special, regardless of their background. Such a positive message is both inspirational and uplifting to her female readers. Moreover, by repeating the word 'phenomenal' throughout every stanza of the poem, the speaker constantly reinforces this positive message and inspires women to believe in their inherent specialness.

Finally, the speaker uses language to create positive images of womanhood which are also inspirational. In stanza two, for example, she mentions the "swing in her waist" and the "joy in her feet," which suggests happiness while also demonstrating her confidence. Similarly, in the third and final stanzas, the speaker uses words like "grace," "sun" and "smile" to create a light and happy mood. This is inspirational because it tells women that just being a woman is enough to be happy, confident and beautiful. 

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How is the poem "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou a source of inspiration to women?

First, while this is a poem that some women may find inspiring, others may not. The poem received a substantial amount of publicity from Oprah Winfrey, a popular television personality, whose work tends to emphasize "inspiration" in the sense of an uplifting positive outlook on life, slickly marketed.

The aspect of the poem that some women find inspirational is the narrator's assertion that although she is not conventionally pretty, men still are attracted to her due to a combination of personal magnetism and a sort of visceral appeal and physical voluptuousness. As many women in the western world feel under pressure to conform to media standards equating self-worth and beauty with thinness and the traditional image of the fashion model, some women may find it inspiring that the narrator of the poem proclaims her confidence even to the point of suggesting that she evokes jealousy from "pretty women," as in the lines:

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.

I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size ...

It's in the reach of my arms,

The span of my hips ...

Although some women find this pushback against unrealistic expectations of body shape and size inspiring, there is a somewhat less inspiring side in that the poem's narrator does not challenge the notion that a women's worth lies in her sexual attractiveness and that a woman's self-valuation should be based on a sort of competition with other women to be stared at more by men as a sexual object. In that sense, this poem seems to fit well with the ethos of Oprah Winfrey's magazine O that serves as a platform advertising and selling beauty products, marketed to audiences of all skin colors and body types.

Personally, I would find a poem that located the value of women in their intellect, skills, and character far more inspiring than one that suggests that what makes a woman "phenomenal" is men staring at her as they would a piece of pornography.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" inspire all women?

Maya Angelou's poem "Phenomenal Woman" could arguably be one of her most popular and beloved poems. While it may not serve as an inspiration for all women, this poem certainly addresses topics and ideas that many women strongly identify with and find to be empowering.

Overall, "Phenomenal Woman" encourages women to embrace their individuality and cherish their unique brand of beauty.

The word "phenomenal," by its commonly used definition, describes something that is "extraordinary and remarkable." Throughout the poem, Angelou makes a loud and proud statement about her own identity as a woman: she is not just any kind of woman, but a phenomenal one.

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I’m telling lies.
I say,
It’s in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
As you can see, the poem starts off with Angelou explaining the disbelief that "pretty women" have when they learn of the positive view she holds of herself. She openly admits that while she is not "cute" or "built to suit a fashion model's size," she is still a phenomenal woman.
According to Angelou, her remarkableness is not derived from fitting society's mainstream vision of beauty or acceptability. Instead, it comes from commonly overlooked attributes such as her stride or the span of her hips. Contrary to popular standards, the individual way she has been formed is what makes her so "phenomenal"—not her dress size. Female readers may find this section particularly inspiring, as it challenges them to identify ways in which they are uniquely phenomenal.
I walk into a room
Just as cool as you please,
And to a man,
The fellows stand or
Fall down on their knees.
Then they swarm around me,
A hive of honey bees.
I say,
It’s the fire in my eyes,
And the flash of my teeth,
The swing in my waist,
And the joy in my feet.
I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
This section of the poem (and the lines that follow) addresses Angelou's impact on men. The notion of men standing or falling to their knees is demonstrative of her innate power over them. Without her having to do or say anything in particular, men respect and desire her. The "fire" in her eyes and "swing" of her waist are things that come naturally to her; they aren't things she can buy or feign, unlike clothing or charm. This portion of the poem may inspire women to start viewing their own natural born qualities as traits men will find powerfully attractive. The ability to simply be themselves and be adored could be greatly liberating.
It is highly possible that Angelou mentions highly sensory descriptions such as "the joy in my feet" and "the flash in my teeth" as an acknowledgment of another definition of the word "phenomenal." This particular definition refers to something that can be "known through the senses rather than through thought or intuition." Instead of Angelou attributing her attractiveness to something someone cannot physically observe, such as intelligence, she mentioned traits that would appeal to a man's physical senses.
Now you understand
Just why my head’s not bowed.
I don’t shout or jump about
Or have to talk real loud.
When you see me passing,
It ought to make you proud.
I say,
It’s in the click of my heels,
The bend of my hair,
the palm of my hand,
The need for my care.
’Cause I’m a woman
Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman,
That’s me.
In the final stanza, Angelou arrives at a lasting conclusion. She describes how unnecessary it is for her to be timid or brash. Instead of hanging her head in shame or drawing extra attention to herself, she continues to commend the simple little things that make her the remarkable woman that she is. For example, the bend of someone's hair may seem trivial to most. However, Angelou argues that something even that seemingly unimportant is worth celebrating. Countless women all over the world have found this poem to be a significant source of inspiration because it poses the idea that women do not have to fit into a specific mold in order to value themselves or to be viewed as beautiful by others. "Phenomenal Woman" truly challenges women of all sizes, shapes, and colors to look for and proudly own everything that makes them unique, phenomenal women as well.
Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does the narrator in Maya Angelou's "Phenomenal Woman" describe herself as phenomenal?

As explanation for men's attraction to her, Maya Angelou's speaker describes the movements of her individual features and the poetry of her motions. These, she declares, are the reasons for her being a "phenomenal woman."

In the first stanza, the speaker notes that pretty women are curious about her secret and ask her how she is able to be so attractive to men. However, when she explains that it is not just her features, "They think I'm telling lies." Nevertheless, she says that her "certain something" that is indefinable is found in the style of her movements and the grace of these movements:

It's in the reach of my arms,
The span of my hips,
The stride of my step,
The curl of my lips...
The swing in my waist

Then, too, she employs imagery to describe the unique features of her body:

It's the fire in my eye,
And the flash of my teeth

The speaker then further explains that she has an inner mystery reflected by her body and movements, which she describes in metaphoric terms:

It's in the arch of my back,
The sun of my smile...
The grace of my style.

Calling herself "a woman / Phenomenally," the speaker adds that men cannot define what it is that draws them to her. For she has an inner mystery, and even when she makes an effort to show it to them, the men say that they still cannot see from what features come her mysterious attractiveness. While the men in the poem look for something concretely physical as the cause of the speaker's attractiveness, the speaker understands that her feminine power comes from an inner source reflected in a combination of physical attributes.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Can you summarize the poem “Phenomenal Woman” by Maya Angelou?

“Phenomenal Woman” is a poem published by the famous writer and poet Maya Angelou. The poem was first published in her 1978 poetry collection And Still I Rise. Although the poem is around forty years old, it appears to be quite relevant to contemporary discussions about womanhood and beauty norms.

The poem begins with the narrator stating that they’re “not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size.” The speaker goes on to explain their phenomenal state as a result of the reach of their arms and the stride of their step. In the first stanza, what’s beautiful, exceptional, or phenomenal isn’t how small or diminutive the speaker is; rather, it’s the speaker's expansive size that makes them noteworthy.

In the second stanza, the speaker explains their notable presence in more elusive terms. It has to do with the fire in their eyes, the swing in their waist, and the captivating yet intangible way that the speaker generally moves around.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker reinforces the link between their phenomenal personhood and their enigmatic style. The speaker says,

They try so much

But they can’t touch

My inner mystery.

In the final stanza, the speaker explains why the enumerated traits have resulted in a person who feels no need to yield to power or act out to draw attention. In the last stanza, it seems like the speaker arrives at the conclusion that their rejection of restrictive beauty norms, their acceptance of their natural body, and their cultivation of a deep interiority has given them the confidence and security that makes them a phenomenal woman.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the summary of the poem "Phenomenal Woman" by Maya Angelou?

From the outset it is pertinently clear that the speaker in the poem has an overwhelming pride in who she is and what she represents. She is no ordinary woman who subscribes to a stereotype. She is different and amazing. She has to be seen to be believed. She is special, extraordinary and powerful. 
The first stanza makes it clear that she does not deem herself "pretty." She does, however, exude a power and charisma that so-called pretty women want to learn about, for they want to know her secret. When she confirms that whatever she has is no secret, they don't believe her. It is clear that she deems everything about her special. It's not that she has any specific characteristic that makes her stand out. What makes her special is simple—she is a woman. It is being a woman that makes her remarkable. She asserts the fact by positively stating at the end of the stanza: "That's me."
In stanza two, the speaker emphasizes her greatness and continues in the same vein by confidently proclaiming that her entrance into a room immediately draws men's attention. She enters without making a fuss and they either stand up out of respect or, out of servile duty, bend their knees to her authority. It is as if these men have no choice—their reactions are automatic and each one, without exception, instinctively and simultaneously, reacts to her amazing presence. They then all surround her—she becomes the queen bee, surrounded by willing acolytes, ready to do her bidding. Once again, the speaker lists the qualities she has that make these "fellows" respond so obligingly to her: it's the fact that she exudes a supreme confidence through her eyes, her smile, the way she swings her waist and how she walks. The assertion is extended—she is a woman, an exceptional and extraordinary being. She has these attributes and this power because she is a woman, and that is what makes her so exceedingly special.
The third stanza is a couplet which repeats her earlier declaration that she is sensational. The fact that this statement stands on its own further accentuates the power she believes she has.
The fourth stanza suggests that men see her as an enigma. They don't know what it is about her that they find attractive. It is not something tangible and, therefore, it is out of their reach. Her power is a mysterious force that they cannot comprehend even when she tries to show them exactly what it is. Once again, the speaker exclaims that her grandness lies in a number of qualities that she possesses followed by the repetition that she is a woman and that her incredible stature lies therein.
The fifth and final stanza offers somewhat of a resolution to the enigma of who or what the speaker is. Here she explains why she does not behave in the stereotypical manner in which she may be expected to. She does not demurely bow her head, nor does she seek attention by jumping about or talking loudly. Her appearance and her stature should be enough to make anyone proud because she exudes, and is, the epitome of pride. The speaker again refers to a number of attributes which, in part, define her, the most significant of which is the fact that she is needed by those who seek care. The word "'cause" brings clarity, for it explains why the speaker is so supremely special—she is a woman and being one makes her an outstanding member of the human race.
One could say that the poem carries a universal message to all women. It is a positive and clear pronouncement that women should be proud of who and what they are. They should celebrate the fact that they are extraordinary in every way. Each part of what they have makes them who they are—it is for this reason that the speaker, throughout the poem, mentions certain feminine traits—each one a part of the whole. The speaker believes that women should walk with their heads held high and should not succumb to stereotypes and the expectations of others. They should not allow themselves to be judged on individual qualities but as a complete whole—a fact that they should repeatedly assert, just as the speaker does.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on